A Smartphone and My Happy Place

I discovered a key to my creative happy place- a place I haven’t seen in some time- or at least not in this capacity. This happy place can live in my pocket and can translate my vision- with the touch of a single button. The key to my happy place? A smartphone.

I purchased this savvy device at the beginning of my recent photo assignment in Europe and downloaded an app that replicates the Holga film camera. I had a vision for part of my assignment and the Holga had to be a part of the total body of work.

 (Crystal Street)

Dinner should always have such ambiance. Riva Del Garda, Italy

Several years ago, while taking a logic class at UNC, I began to see things in squares. I know this sounds insane, but while learning to understand logic- my creative mind was trying to learn to see in medium format. Let me give that statement some context.

I see in rectangles. I see in black and white. I see light and I see shadows.

My world has been immersed in 35 mm photography for so long, that I see everything as a potential composition- even if my camera is no where to be found. That’s my world. That’s how my mind works.

And has been working for over 20 years.

Strolling through Riva Del Guarda.

When I shifted into digital almost a decade ago, I lost a part of the joy of my passion. Things became technical. They became complicated and they began to be measured in pixels. And unfortunately, the cameras I enjoyed, the instruments that truly sang to me, were film cameras.

Last year I took a step towards satisfying my passionate needs with an amazing professional digital camera, which has one major drawback. She is a massive beast of a tool. She’s amazing and when I lift her to my eye and interpret the world through her lens, I find joy, peace and flow.

But her size and weight prohibits me from truly engaging in the creative outlet that makes my heart sing- street photography. Simply documenting the tiny slices of humanity that I encounter when I wander through the world. My professional companion is amazing for commercial work and outstanding for intense photojournalism or documentary projects, but when the time comes for me to embrace my inner Henri-Cartier Bresson, the sheer magnitude of her power inhibits my art.

An afternoon in the park in Annecy, France.

After the summer when I began to see squares, I purchased a Holga, the lovely 20 dollar toy camera that shoots medium format film. I lugged her to Palestine, Jordan and Indonesia. And fell in love with the odd, dreamy, mystery square that I created with her.

A Holga is truly a piece of masterful shit- really. She leaks light, has only one exposure setting, focusing is more of an abstract concept rather than a precise technical skill and you get 12 shots a roll and that’s it. I actually close her shut with electrical tape, so changing a roll takes at least 5 minutes. And you never know what you’re getting- which is part of her charm.

But now, technology and my passionate needs have collided in the most unlikely of places. An unlocked, Italian Droid smartphone with a Holga app. Go fucking figure.

For the past five weeks, while shooting a documentary assignment in Italy and France, I have kept that damn phone in my hand the entire time- even while shooting with my lovely professional beast. I must look like I’ve lost my mind- standing next to the Notre Dame in Paris, a $5000 camera draped over one shoulder while obsessively shooting with a $200 smartphone. I feel like I’m cheating on my lovely pro companion, but I just can not help myself.

I am the proverbial kid in the candy store.

Standing outside the Pantheon in Rome.

Yes, its a smartphone, and yes, its a computer app. But this new tool pushes me to translate the world the way I truly see it- and try to capture the vision in tiny slices of time.

The smartphone allows me to strip away the complications and get back to the basics of composition. I can simply look for light and wait for my subject to step into that light. I see a visual metaphor unfolding before me and simply wait until the right moment to capture it.

I can simply sit and watch. I understand how this computer application in my phone reads light and I compose my images around these methods of interpretation.

I can return to simply reading pockets of light, long shadows and contrasting objects of black and white.

I can return to the core of my art. Composition. Joy. Flow.

A Trip to the Projects

As I work to get back on track after a massive MacBook crash and realign myself with the PC world (yes, I’m on an HP Netbook now- she’s little and adorable, but my workflow is a little slow) I figured I would share some of my past documentary work.

In 2007, I produced a documentary project revolving around the topics of inner crime and poverty in Durham, N.C. I spent four months riding along with Ben Parrish, a Durham police officer assigned to patrol the housing projects throughout the city. The poet interviewed in this piece is Wisdom Pharaoh, an immensely talented and gifted artist and her daughter is reciting one of her poems during the narration.

Damn, the West is Beautiful!

Why has this blog been so quiet lately, you ask?

Well, I’ve stumbled onto a little writer’s blog. It happens, what can I say. Due, in part, to my abrupt change in location in November. Disruption- while I am a fan of change- can take a toll on the creative muses that live in my brain and help me create my work. So can the constant changing of living situations.

But more on that later.

I’ve decided to just show you what I’ve been up to rather then tell you. A change in direction, I know, but at least it’s visually stimulating.

What can I say, this is where I live. Or about 40 minutes down the road from where I live. Hard to leave such an amazing place, I admit it.

Yet, this is where I was heading. So, who can argue with this beauty as well. The deserts of Arizona are not a bad trade-off to the peaks of the Rockies. Assuming one had to choose.

And yes, I must include Little Red and the Happy Hound Dog in as many photos as possible, especially when the backdrop is so damn gorgeous. Makes Little Red look like quite the bad ass!

Driving down through the Rockies, close to Salida on route 285. I have to admit, I felt a profound sadness when I reached the last town on the Colorado/New Mexico border and my Rockies were far off in the distance. It’s possible that this nomad has truly found her home. Yea, I’m the kind of person who has to leave what they have in order to know that want it. Tortured, eh?

After a long day of driving and an extensive hike, Ladybug commandeered her new friend Waylon’s very large doggie bed. Quite the gentleman, he allowed her to be the queen of the doggie bed before we headed on down the road to southern Arizona.

“Uh, I’m not quite sure what those needles and prickly things are, but they keep getting stuck in my paws. And didn’t I see a sign for rattlesnakes and scorpions over there? You really think this is better than that nice fluffy white stuff we just left, mom?” Yea, if my dog had a thought bubble, that’s what it would say. But at least that’s Sedona in the background and she got some good Vortex Vibes while she took care of her roadside business- or I like to think she did.

Yea, that’s beautiful. Enough said.

“I like to watch all those clouds go by. I don’t think we’re in blizzard country anymore, my hair is flying off at an alarming rate. I can smell rabbits out there, I wonder if I can have some for dinner. Look mom, no more gas, damn my furry little ass was a little stinky at 10,500 feet. Think they’ll have hiking trails and howling wolves in our new location?” More Ladybug thought bubbles. She likes to ride with her nose resting on the window sill. Little does she know she’s about to land in the warm desert to live in an RV park with some old timers for a few months. I think they’ll like her, she’s likes to lay around and listen to stories- which is a prerequisite for living in the park.

I think Arizona may have the best rest stops in the country.

And what photo essay of a westward drive would be complete without the sunset?

Amost there...just a few more mountains and some cacti.

Time Travel Tuesday~ Leaving Jerusalem

Originally published in 2007

Leaving Jerusalem

A young Palestinian mother sat down beside me on a bus bound the Mount of Olives. In her arms was a beautiful little boy, around age two, with large brown eyes and little curls that brushed his cheeks. He reached out to me several times as we wound our way up the Mount, and gave me a sly little smile each time his tiny fingers grabbed my shirt.

A young Bedouin family takes refuge from the sun on a summer afternoon.

He rested his head on his mother’s shoulder and looked at me without his smile. His round eyes seemed to hold all the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people that he was born into. We exchanged a long, knowing glance for several moments, I was thinking of how difficult his life was going to be growing up under occupation in a land with no hope for peace and he seemed to understand my thoughts. With a little sigh and another stare he seemed to say; “yes, I know my path is long and difficult and I know there is little hope for my future.”

While I was simply projecting my sentiments onto a young toddler, I’ll never forget his face and that look of knowing he possessed. The look of sorrowful understanding that only a child born into the pain and suffering of a people can know. I’ve seen the same look on the faces of toddlers in a Nepalese orphanage, of street children working in the landfills of Kathmandu, of Indian children living in a beggars camp in the Himalayans, on the faces of Tibetan toddlers living in orphanages separated from their parents in China and on the faces of children living in the public housing units in downtown Durham, N.C.

Such a look of pain, understanding and resignation should not be inherently present in the eyes of a toddler who cognitively does not know his role in this world yet.

A young Palestinian girl watches the sunset at the Sullha Peace Festival in Israel.

My departure from Israel took the form of an overnight bus filled with young Jewish adults heading to the Red Sea resort of Eilat. The bus was filled with teenage laughter and iPod music, soldiers in uniform heading for vacation and the occasional western tourist. Our bus arrived at 4am in a destination very similar to Atlantic City; neon saturated streets, all night bars and cafes and drunken young adults staggering about scantily dressed and looking for mates. Quite a shock from the conservative young adults of Jerusalem, dressed modestly and reading from the Torah at a coffee shop while gossiping with friends.

After a brief wait for the border to open, I was allowed to cross into Jordan. I was shocked at the ease of leaving the country, when compared to the seven hour ordeal of entry. A Jewish couple also crossed into Jordan for a day of vacation and asked if I’d like to share a cab. We walked to the Jordanian side of the crossing and I could tell they were a little nervous. The young man admitted this was his first time entering Jordan. Eilat is 2 miles by car from Jordan and a mile or less by boat. The couple lived in Eilat and had never crossed the other side. Odd.

The Jordanian border crossing was a welcoming site. The guards were taking their time opening everything and as is custom in Muslim countries, the pace of activities is much slower then elsewhere. The guards were having their morning coffee and chatting in a room as they told us to wait a few moments until the coffee was done.

Crossing at Eilat warrants a free visa with a one month extension, with no questions or interrogations. The man happily stamped my passport and smiled at me.

“Like the sun!” he exclaimed as he pointed to the blue visa stamp in my passport, which bared the resemblance of the sun. Jordanians possess a strong sense of nationalism and this can be seen even in the tiniest of actions. Such a stamp has never been so welcome in my recently weathered passport.


And welcome is just what I felt. As our cab drove towards Aqaba, I saw the enormous Jordanian flag flying over the shore and felt a warm sense of relief. Jordan is a very comfortable country and the people are so affectionate and pleasant, even towards Americans. They may give a little ribbing about Bush, but they enjoy American people. While eating lunch with my driver and his friends at the Dead Sea, one friend said he loved Americans because they are so open and so happy, unlike the Europeans. I am always amazed at the misconceptions that we in America have of most people living in the Middle East.

Upon returning to the hotel in Madaba, where I began my journey three weeks ago, I was greeted with a warm smile and handshake from the receptionist. The next morning as I sat in the lobby waiting for my favorite driver to take me to the Dead Sea for a little float, the receptionist asked me to join her at her house for dinner that evening. I accepted and she gave me a warm smile and said she just cooked a big meal yesterday and that I will enjoy her family.

My Jordanian dinner hosts.

Later that afternoon, we walked through the streets of Madaba towards her home. We chatted and were shocked to find out that we were the same age, born only a few weeks apart. I told her how refreshing it was to be welcomed into stranger’s homes for coffee and dinner. This was not the first invitation I received on this journey and it never failed to amaze me the hospitality of the Arabic people.

A budding photographer.

Could my hosts be any more adorable?

As we walked, we talked about how in America the people have a distance between themselves and that, while in my own country, I have never received an invitation from a stranger to join them for coffee in their home. I asked if she had ever been to America and she replied, “No, I will only go to Syria, not America.” When asked why, she gave an interesting answer. She said that America was too fast paced. That people worked too hard with too much stress and often times missed out on the enjoyable aspects of life. She feared that Jordan may become the same fast paced landscape one day and she doesn’t want her children to live that way.

Walking through Madaba.

She has a point. I’m guilty of neglecting the finer things in life, the things that bring joy and relaxation because I’m too busy for such an indulgence. In fact, the past two years have been such a whirlwind, that I’m ready to find an island all to myself and hide from the world for a year, and I’m only finishing my undergraduate degree. I can only imagine what has been missed by those who have been grinding away on careers at break-neck speed for decades.

Yes, we need to support ourselves and we should seek employment that allows us to do so while finding enjoyment from our jobs and our professions, but when I visit other countries and see how happy people are with so much less than Americans, I have to question our motivations.

Life can be a simple endeavor, we can seek enjoyment from things other than our professions and we can also derive pleasure from our professions while enjoying our personal lives. Yet, often we choose not to do both. When did we sacrifice the self for advancement of careers and what will happen when we reach the end of that career and we see all that we might have left in its wake?

An interesting point of contemplation as I return to America and debate my own career path and the desire to start a family; can the two co-exist, particularly when part of my career requires extensive travel, to at times, undesirable places?

Or better yet, should the two co-exist? Should one seek both family and career, knowing that one will be sacrificed in the end? And what happens when that career is also, and always has been, your passion? Is there room for both the passion and the family? And is that a fair environment to bring a child into, knowing that young children can not, nor should they, understand the parent’s passion for a profession? A never-ending debate- which I am beginning to believe has no solution, only a warranted compromise.

Time Travel Tuesday~ A Futile Protest?

Originally published in 2007

In a small town just outside of Ramallah, international tourists, protesters and several local Palestinians gather for a weekly engagement with the IDF soldiers who guard the road leading into Israel. Following afternoon prayers, the Palestinians gather, along with the visitors and press and walk towards the checkpoint to engage in this dance, complete with tear gas, rubber bullets and rock throwing. International protesters place themselves between the soldiers and the Palestinians, with the belief that the IDF would not fire upon them due to the passports they possess.

Over the past several years, Israel has been consuming the rural landscape which is the livelihood of many of the Palestinians living in Bil’in. While the legitimacy of any protest can be questioned on many levels, the core reasons for engaging in this protest seem justifiable, if one faced the prospect of losing their livelihood due to occupation. (I apologize for the lack of research on this point, but here’s a link to more information about Bil’in: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bil%27in)

Curious to see this event and its role within the broader context of this conflict, my colleague and I decided to witness firsthand the protests and the interaction between the IDF, international demonstrators and Palestinian protesters.

What lies beneath the surface of this weekly event reflects the banality and absurdity that civil disobedience and peaceful protests can produce when the message is muddled by outside ‘revolutionaries,’ the media and some thrill seeking tourists. Sadly, this revelation is not surprising but to actually see the events unfold and the media’s role in the process is appalling and somewhat deplorable.

After our cab dropped us at the guest house which was the temporary home to these Friday protesters, I and my colleague walked to the protest site and waited quietly under a tree for the crowd to approach. A group of photographers arrived first, complete with helmets, vests and gas masks. Their helmets had the letters AP taped to them (Associated Press) and they had the word PRESS on the back of their vests. I couldn’t help but think that such an outfit might come in handy in about ten minutes.

As the protesters approached, I began to shoot from one side of this small group, trying to get a feel for the amount of people and identify the heart of the scene. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw several people dressed in pink clown suits complete with costume makeup. I paused for a moment to process the presence of clowns.

The press hovered about the group and once they reached the barbed wire, I crossed the line onto the Israeli side to shoot with the other photographers. I slowly began to distance myself from the group, knowing that at any minute canisters of tear gas would be shot towards the crowd. As I walked towards the filmmakers and the soldiers, I noticed that the main “director” of the film crew was sending his cameraman towards the soldiers when they were clearly yelling at them not to come any further. The “director” continued to yell at the soldiers and checked to make sure his crew was in position.

As I tried to digest this reality and still create distance, the sounds of canisters being shot into the air drowned the yelling protesters. I found a nice little rock wall blocked from the wind and the soldiers and watched this dance from a close vantage point. The clowns kept walking up the street and the soldiers kept shooting canisters at them. Laughter rang out from the IDF positions, and I can not say that I blame the soldiers. One clown received a canister to the rear end, which created quite a bit of laughter from the soldiers, some of whom documented the event with their camcorders and cell phones .

Several of the international protesters, with point and shoot cameras in hand, continued approaching the post where the soldiers were standing and shouted silly phrases of peace and cursed the soldiers, only to have a tear gassed response.

Beyond the ridiculous nature of clowns and “tourists” shouting at soldiers with teargas; what I found quite amazing during this time was the behavior of the press. I use the term press loosely; several AP photographers, some local shooters, some filmmakers, bloggers and the brother of a famous writer with a digital point and shoot.

Several of the Palestinians remained close to the barbed wire and the photographers would stand next to them and wait for the gas to be shot. Often times, some of the photographers provoked the soldiers to shoot the gas canisters and approached the point where clearly they would be fired upon and waved for the protesters to approach as well.

While waiting for a gas cloud to pass, I heard a cell phone ringing nearby; and the protester actually answered it. In a calm voice, amidst a cloud of tear gas, the protester told the caller that he was at a demonstration, now was not a good time to talk and that he would have to call them back soon.

Afterwards, several protesters gathered the canisters and more photo opportunities were available for the press. Off to the side of the protest, just below the heart of the village, several young kids began throwing stones at the soldiers and the IDF engaged with more tear canisters and rubber bullets. The international protesters ran to the hills to participate in this engagement while the remaining participants made their way back to the guest house.

At this point, the real tragedy of this dance presented itself. After witnessing the behavior of the adults, these young children with slingshots began to aim for the soldiers. In theory, international protesters are supposed to provide a physical barrier between the Palestinians and the IDF, yet as soon as the rubber bullets began to fly, the international protesters cowered behind a wall as the young children continued to throw stones and receive rubber bullets.

A Palestinian man yelled “welcome” to the international protesters and they ran over the hills to watch this part of the demonstration. Having seen enough, I walked back to find my colleague and digest the events I witnessed.

What are these young children learning from this event? Each week they watch the process unfold and they participate in ways that could cause them serious harm. There have to be better methods of protest, better means of conveying a message, better ways to conduct an effective act of civil disobedience that does not end in harmful fumes and rubber bullets.

Outside the falafel stand, people swapped stories of near misses, shared photos and laughed about their involvement while eating ice cream and having refreshments. The ‘documentary filmmaker’ bragged about their footage, gloated about starting the revolution in Kashmir and then asked who was heading back to Tel Aviv for drinks?

While driving back to Ramallah with several very kind and informed protesters, I raised the perspective that the presence of clowns (members of an NGO who uses clowns in demonstrations to show the soldiers that the violence is comical or unnecessary) degrades and demeans the movement of the Palestinian people. While this weekly protest, in my opinion, seems to have little positive effect and influence on the conflict, the fact that people are dressed as clowns gives the impression that the cause itself is something for amusement. The people in the car had never viewed their presence in that manner before.

Left behind was a town filled with Palestinians who have to live the side effects of occupation every day. Every Friday, their children have to breathe the gas fumes from these interactions and they watch tourists and demonstrators fulfill some personal need to feel engaged in the Palestinian movement. The press arrives and provokes an escalation- either through their presence alone, or deliberately as the filmmaker demonstrated- the mass media picks up a few photos of angry protesters and people watching the news gain incorrect perceptions of the reality that exists in the West Bank.

Most journalists wage a constant struggle with the ethical ramifications of their presence in the situations they document. At what point does my presence effect the situation and at what point does my presence introduce an element of falsity? Would this child be throwing stones and provoking soldiers to respond with bullets if my camera was not documenting the process?

Am I misleading the news consumer by selecting the ‘intense emotional’ moments of a weekly protest and placing them into the mass media for consumption; while leaving out the clown with the point and shoot camera and the Japanese teenager eating ice cream after he’s gathered the gas canisters for the Palestinians to place in front of the camera for a perfectly emotional photo opportunity?

At what point do the peace protests and demonstrations become completely futile? The ease of showing up every Friday, getting gassed, taking some snapshots, yelling slogans of peace and provoking IDF soldiers seems to be a simple escape from becoming engaged in a diplomatic peace process. Seeking an education and work experience in conflict resolution; working on diplomatic levels to enact a broader level of change for a country or for individual people; documenting the actual issues in a manner that has a purpose and is framed in the context of reality are all methods for those seeking solutions to truly be engaged with the peace process. Some people at these protests have genuine intentions and are engaged in the process on a level that will promote a viable outcome on some level; but I must question the motivations from most, not all, of the people I interacted with on that day.